Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
May 20th, 2009

Angels and Demons — mindless and mild

Uproar over this summer action flick is wasted breath



In the gospel according to Ron Howard, absolutely everything is ominous when it’s undertaken at the Vatican. Whether it’s a member of the curia strolling down a dark hallway of the Holy See, or somebody steeping tea in the papal breakfast nook, the director who has brought Dan Brown’s novels to the cineplex loads down the moment with portent and peril. It’s a world in which you can’t help but imagine that even the gift shops are flooded with gloomy light.

Howard’s first adaptation of a Brown bestseller, The DaVinci Code, was a purgatorial mess. His second stab, Angels and Demons, ratchets up the excitement, cuts back on some of DaVinci‘s convoluted anti-Catholicism, and manages to be a mindless, mildly entertaining and lucrative blockbuster for the Memorial Day weekend crowds.

I’ve faithfully avoided Brown’s books despite their popularity, and after seeing the two films, I feel better about this decision all the time (although it made me a lonely man in airports, circa 2005.) Brown seems to have constructed his stories through focus groups, cobbling together elements from other popular, more inventive sources. Take a healthy serving of Indiana Jones, add a dash of the energy-technology-in-the-wrong-hands intrigue of The Saint for seasoning, and presto: you get Angels and Demons.

But compared to the torpid, interminable plod of its predecessor, The DaVinci Code, the film version of Angels and Demons might as well be Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s enough action and arcana to keep your eyelids open this time. You could even call it a thriller. The violin-heavy soundtrack by Hans Zimmer has only one gear — relentless — which withers your nerves into submission, like it or not.

Trouble in Catholic land, again

The film starts, like DaVinci, with trouble in Catholic land. A beloved pope has just died. (Couldn’t they have at least tried something more imaginative than a John Paul II look-alike?) Ahead of the conclave, four leading cardinals have been kidnapped, ostensibly by a secret society of science-lovers still honked about the Galileo trial. Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is once again called in to crack the case and prevent the cardinals’ deaths. There to help him is another charming, raven-haired foreign lady, and another spate of conveniently placed runes and ancient Roman manholes. Langdon closes in on the truth, dodging bullets and getting terribly little help from the Italian police force. (At least they didn’t go on strike.)

Also, there is something called antimatter, being produced at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland, which can be used as a big-time explosive. None of this — not a wit — makes any sense. I couldn’t grasp why the bad guys needed antimatter instead of just an old-fashioned bomb.

But nihil obstat. Whether it’s the kind of compliment Howard wants to hear or not, Angels and Demons is that rare movie whose utter silliness didn’t really bother me. Its ambitions beyond ticket sales are so mild, and its efforts at profundity are so half-hearted, that I couldn’t hold much against it. Even when the film hits on the heavier theme of science versus religion, it hardly seems interested. All we really get of the issue is a heated, ten-second exchange in St. Peter’s Square about stem cells, and a short spiel about reconciling the two sides from Ewan MacGregor’s bright-eyed young priest character. (It’s a sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Vatican City” moment.)

Wasted breath

If a summer film is so indifferent to its own deeper themes, why on earth are we debating the finer points of its treatment of the Church?

This begs an important question: if a summer film is so indifferent to its own deeper themes, why on earth are we debating the finer points of its treatment of the Church? Five years from now, Tom Hanks won’t even remember he was in Angels and Demons, and yet Catholics are in an uproar over the significance of the movie franchise’s unflattering portrait of their faith. Given DaVinci‘s central subject matter, the protests weren’t unwarranted. And it might be fair to ask rhetorically what other religious community Hollywood would ever make a similar movie about. (I have my own doubts that there are any.) But anything more is wasted breath on the second installment.

Besides, Ron Howard is anxious to kiss and make up this time around. He made a special plea to Catholics before the new movie’s premiere, and he even plays nice with an ending involving a new, moderate pope taking the balcony at St. Peter’s before a jubilant crowd. The gloom is gone! The new pope’s not a criminal!

Given all of the Catholic outcry that surrounded Angels and Demons‘ release, I actually found myself let down by this ending — to me, it seems like a pretty craven effort at endearment. After all, if you’re making a sequel to a film that depicts the Catholic Church as a cesspool of fraud and machinations from the apostolic get-go, why shift to a lower gear of bald prejudice? They should’ve made the papacy (and Jesus, with his wife and kids) responsible for global warming, say. Or the JFK assassination. What the heck — the possibilities are endless; I’m sure Dan Brown is hard at work on the third installment with his next focus group, right at this very moment.

The Author : Greg Ruehlmann
Greg Ruehlmann writes on humorous, religious and cultural topics in publications including McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Morning News, Busted Halo, National Catholic Reporter and National Lampoon.
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  • Seraph

    First off, it wasn’t a sequel. It was a prequel. Antimatter does exist. It is made in a supercollider at CERN. CERN is real. I haven’t seen the movie. After the way DaVinci was butchered I didn’t even bother with Angels and Demons. If you do the research instead of just criticizing you would have probably come across as not being so blindly critical.

  • margaret

    I get the point, but all we ever do is stay silent and never complain. Catholics are taught to be tolerate of it all. That’s why we get walked all over all the time. If we consistently speak up then people will think twice about how they mention Catholics in bad movies!!! Show me where the protest is!!!

  • Andrea

    Before either movie came out, I read both books to see what all the hype was about. Angels & Demons is actually the 1st book, so the fact that the story seems a little more half-baked than DaVinci Code isn’t surprising. Dan Brown poked at the Church a little bit in his 1st book, and didn’t get a reaction, so he poked a little harder and got the uproar he was likely hoping for. If this is his pattern, I’m truly afraid of what random conspiracies a 3rd book might present…but I’m sure it’ll be another relatively entertaining work of fiction.

  • cathyf

    Highly recommended is Dave Barry’s sendup of The DaVinci Code:

    I also agree with amanda about debating from a position of knowledge. But I would note that you can be just as knowledgeable (if not in quite so timely a manner) by borrowing the book from the library and/or waiting for the movie to come out in video.

  • amanda

    i agree with jim with respect to “thou doth protest too much” and how that makes the Church look and i agree the movie/book are works of fiction to be seen as such. however, i feel that when it comes to matters of church. faith and religion in a world so confused, so lost – even angry about same, we must be careful what we condone. i admit, i DID see the movie and was happy that it had LESS anti-catholic/christian sentiment as the first – that there was an attempt, albeit meager, to debate both sides rather than attack one.

    i went to see this movie because when i enter a conversation, i prefer to be knowledgeable about the subject matter i am going to refute or debate – i find it makes me a better advocate for my beliefs if i understand from where another is coming. but at the same time, it is disheartening that so many people – those who have not found Christ or those who have run from Him – will find this not as fiction but as testimony to their fears and suspicions.

    i want to say that is IS just a movie but given the times we are in and the importance of God in all times, i instead hesitate… all i can do is pray that if nothing else, it brings more Christians together to defend the truth & ultimately God.

  • Jim

    I agree with one of the comments, a lot of the anti-Catholic stuff in the book was left out of this one. The science is semi-true, but again, it’s a work of fiction. The danger of the last statement, though, is that since the books and movies are so popular, people sometimes don’t understand that it is fiction. Rather than getting all worked up about it, I think it depicts the differences in being able to publish fiction about the Church…if someone would write a book or make a movie that was perceived as anti-Muslim…I’m not sure the author or those involved wouldn’t need security details. :) I was amazed at the back lash about DaVinci because again, the work is fiction…meaning not true…end of story. If you defend yourself against someone/something that is right out stating they are saying not-true things…you can start making people wonder if there might not be some truth there. But that’s my opinion, I could be and probably am wrong…

  • Phil

    I thought the movie was ok as an action thriller. A lot of the anti-Catholic agenda present in the book version was left out, making the movie more enjoyable for me. I don’t think that Ron Howard shares the anti-Catholic agenda of Dan Brown- he was just trying to adapt the story into a good screenplay. I do agree that many Catholics are getting a little too worked up over a shallow work of fiction with very little substance, though. In my opinion: overall, a thrilling but shallow movie with very little substance, better than its predecessor. Worth seeing if you enjoyed the National Treasure films or other history thrillers.

  • ml

    If it makes you feel any better (It didn’t me), the science in the book is as wrong as the religion in the book. I haven’t seen the movie, as I refuse to pay $10.50 to see something that will probably bore me.

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